HOT ISSUES Leaders discuss runway safety, funding, and security challenges

Jan. 8, 2003

By John F Infanger

Marion C. Blakey, who recently left as head of the National Transportation Safety Board to become FAA Administrator, told the airport group that runway safety remains a high priority, as it has been at NTSB. She also echoed airports’ concerns about AIP monies being spent for security. In 2002, says Blakey, $561 million of Airport Improvement Program dollars went to security projects, an 800 percent increase. "We cannot cannibalize our capital budgets," she says.

On the security front, Admiral Loy, Under Secretary of Transportation for Security at TSA, reiterated that he is confident "we can achieve the security level to deter this new enemy." He relates that while the initial focus has been on aviation and airports, the TSA will heighten its focus on marine and land transport in the months ahead.

Loy says that the agency is reviewing the trusted traveler program proposal supported by airport groups and says it could help the customer flow process by minimizing re-screening. At the conference, Tom Blank, TSA’s Acting Associate Under Secretary, says the elimination of the controversial 300-foot rule is still being examined as part of the agency’s "unnecessary rule review process."

While confident that TSA will be up to the task of meeting its mandated deadlines, Loy concedes that it will depend on whether or not it is given "adequate resources" by Congress. That, of course, means funding, a major concern of airport groups and in a state of flux because of the impasse in Congress related to the delayed FY2003 budget bill. Security funding, like AIP, has been caught up in the 3-month appropriation cycle heading into 2003, which is also hampering AIP distribution decisions at FAA, say officials.

"I am very concerned at this point," comments Kate Lang, who oversees distribution of AIP monies at FAA. "Probably the biggest frustration was the lateness of the distribution of money" due to Congressional inaction. While she calls the AIP program robust, Lang, like many, is concerned that a new authorization bill for airports is not in place to replace AIR-21 when it expires this fall.

Adds ACI-NA president David Plavin, "I don’t know if there is a will to get it done." He points to decisions that have to be made regarding security funding, and where in the Congressional committee structure those decisions fall, as potential stumbling blocks for aviation funding.

Officials also are concerned about the inability of TSA and airports to come to terms on leasing agreements for space the agency now occupies at airport facilities. However, officials from FAA’s airports division are offering to intervene when an airport and TSA reach an impasse.

Point-Counterpoint: Airports, Transport Canada Face Off

During a session at this year’s ACI-NA annual conference, representatives of the federal government and airports discussed Scott Clements, president and CEO of the Edmonton Regional Airports Authority, says there are four "current hot topics" for airport directors in Canada: rent review, impending legislation, regulator/ operator relationships, and safety/security.

Valerie Dufour, director general of Transport Canada, says that Transport Canada is undertaking a "major initiative to look at a competition policy — airports being natural monopolies and how they apply to competition policy." However, Dufour adds, "the Minister is not inclined to jump into new policies; the industry isn’t strong enough."

In looking at the competition policy, Dufour says, "We wouldn’t go anywhere the U.S. has gone. We have a dominant carrier who is becoming less dominant [Air Canada]." She says that competition from smaller, discount airlines has helped many airports and she is confident that other small carriers will come in if the market is there. "If the market is not there … we have to face the possibility that not all airports are essential."

When asked why Transport Canada is considering changing the formula under which airports have operated since the national government’s transfer, Dufour explains, "We’re trying to make it better." "The airport community is the only part of Transport that doesn’t have an economic framework.

should be … [Airports] haven’t enjoyed the economic freedom they should. We’re trying to establish a better organized framework for broad application in the airport community."

"Why are we paying rent?" Clements asks Dufour. "We are managing a local asset for the government of Canada, and, in theory, turning it back to the government in 60 years … Edmonton will pay $17 million in rent in 2002 if nothing changes."

Dufour says that, of 22 airports only eight pay what she refers to as "real rent" to the government. "So far, the argument Scott raises, ’Why rent?’ hasn’t been brought to the table with enough to back it. And, also, the department has become addicted to that money."

Bill Elliot, assistant deputy minister of the safety and security group for Transport Canada, explains his department will be increased by 100 percent. "Transport Canada is supportive of efforts to facilitate known/frequent travelers through customs," Elliot adds. He says it is currently looking into the use of trusted traveler cards and biometrics through an interoperability committee.

Impending legislation regarding pre-clearance for travel between Canada and the United States was also part of the discussion. "The ball is in the American court," Dufour says. "They owe us some companion legislation to make all of this fall into place… Canada has done everything it had to do; it’s up to the U.S. to complete the circle." — Jodi Prill